At about 8:32 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16, there was a very loud, metal-on-metal grinding noise that sent people running outside their homes and businesses to see what it was.
That was along East Huron River Drive, in the eastern part of the city of Belleville and Van Buren Township all the way to Haggerty Road.
Those at the transmission shop, right next to the tracks, heard the brakes screeching and the tremendously loud bang and thought it might be a train collision with a truck. Workers went outside and walked along the train to see what had happened and found it was a derailment. They had called 911, but the dispatcher reported they already had the information.
Van Buren Township Police Chief Jason Wright said the first dispatch to police on the incident was that two trains had hit head on. This sent everyone available to the scene, running their police cars red-hot.
A father said he was delivering his children to Savage Elementary School and he was shocked when a police car went by – through the school zone – at 90 mph. He said he had never seen anything like that.
When emergency crews arrived, it was determined that a one-mile-long train operated by Norfork Southern, heading toward Belleville, had derailed between the East Huron River Drive and Martinsville Road crossings.
Chief Wright said both ends of the train were still on the tracks, but 30 cars in the center were off the tracks. The only hazardous tanker in the train carried liquid chlorine and was unaffected. There were no dents or damage to the tanker and it was on the tracks. It was a part of the string of cars at both ends pulled away from the off-track cars, almost immediately after the accident he said, noting he was an eye-witness to that.
He said he saw two hoppers on their sides containing scrap metal and a car containing agricultural grain, but the rest were said to be empty. On Monday, several empty cars still remained along the tracks.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy confirmed there was no hazardous situation. There were no injuries, Chief Wright said.
On Thursday afternoon, Chief Wright said they didn’t know how the accident was caused.
The East Huron River Drive crossing remained closed on Friday as cleanup continued. The Martinsville Road crossing, which had been closed for repairs anyway, remained closed. The Haggerty Road crossing, south of I-94, had been closed Thursday and then reopened.
Immediately after the derailment, Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell released a statement: “My team and I have been in touch with Supervisor Kevin McNamara, the Van Buren Fire Department, and other local officials regarding the train derailment in Van Buren Township. We are also in touch with the relevant federal authorities, including the EPA. At this time no one is aware of the release of any hazardous materials, the car carrying hazardous material has been put upright and is being removed from the area of the other derailed cars, and EPA is dispatching a team to ensure public safety. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely and remain in touch with federal, state, and local officials, and release additional information as it becomes available.”
On Thursday afternoon, State Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton, and State Rep. Reggie Miller, D-Van Buren, released a statement: “This accident is very disturbing, especially following the recent incident in Ohio. We have been in communication with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Environment, the rail company, and other elected officials since this morning. As the situation develops, we’re thankful for the crews who will be cleaning up this site.”
Norfolk Southern has been the subject of public outrage after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — about 250 miles from Detroit — caused a spill of what is reported to be five different toxic chemicals that were then allowed to burn. This sent a huge plume of smoke and gas over the community.
Residents were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses and then were told it was safe to go back. Some were re-evacuated. Residents have since complained of side effects they believe to be the result of the spill, including headaches, irritated eyes, and sick pets.
Ohio state officials insisted that testing shows the air is safe to breathe around East Palestine, where just under 5,000 people live near the Pennsylvania state line. They promised that air and water monitoring would continue.
But residents met Thursday evening in East Palestine and were unhappy that Norfolk and Southern representatives weren’t there and neither were representatives from the state, leaving them to feel that they didn’t care about the citizens’ safety. Over the weekend, the Norfolk and Southern CEO visited the city.
Van hits train at that crossing
The Independent was alerted to a Feb. 4 accident on that crossing when a driver reported the flashing lights and crossing arm were not operating properly and he drove into a train at the East Huron River Drive crossing.
He was driving a Tornado’s Pizza van and hit the first or second train car. He reportedly said if he had been on the tracks a moment sooner he would have been hit by the train.
Reportedly, the van was repaired quickly and there was no injury.
Accurate Transmission, located next to the tracks at that location, reportedly shared its surveillance video of the crash with Tornado’s Pizza and its insurance company and then the Van Buren Police.
Chief Wright looked at the report of the property damage accident and said there was no report of the video.
But the transmission shop told the Independent the video showed the arm and lights weren’t working. When the train people came out to repair the signal, they said if the arm had been down it would have been bent, and it wasn’t.